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The Witness Still Stands: The Life and Lessons of Whittaker Chambers

The Witness Still Stands: The Life and Lessons of Whittaker Chambers

September 14, 2015

Written by Guy F. Burnett

The life of Whittaker Chambers was as astonishing as it was complex. Throughout the course of his life, he was a communist, a conservative, a spy, an informant, an editor of Time Magazine, an editor of the Daily Worker, an atheist, a Quaker, and a friend to both Alger Hiss and William F. Buckley, Jr. At any given point of his life, his enemies were legion. From the experiences of his life and the copious amount of books he devoured, Chambers became a deeply thoughtful and complex man—a man who understood the flaws in both communism and the West’s weakness against it. Chambers brought the struggle to the forefront of the American consciousness, and became one of the key figures in the intellectuals’ battle for hearts and minds. He stood as a witness of the horrors of communism in both ideology and practice.

In the Foreword to his masterpiece Witness, Chambers writes a letter to his children about the book he is going to publish. With a soul-searching candor, he anticipates his children—and indeed every reader—asking him: “Why, then, do men become Communists? How did it happen that you, our gentle and loved father, were once a Communist?” His answer is short but powerful: “Communism makes some profound appeal to the human mind.” Chambers’ life was proof that his assertion was correct.

 Chambers became a key figure in the intellectuals’ battle for hearts and minds

He was born in 1901 and grew up in Long Island in a lower-middle class family. By his own account, his family had their share of problems, and his childhood was anything but idyllic. His father would spend long absences from home, eventually leaving altogether, and his mentally ill grandmother tried several times to murder the family in their sleep. In his autobiography Witness, he recalls that he didn’t have any friends in school, and that from a young age he was enamored with books and languages. His grades were always higher than those around him, and eventually they earned him matriculation into Columbia University where he studied under such luminaries as Professor Mark Van Doren. In Cold Friday, a collection of letters and a second autobiographical manuscript posthumously published, he wrote, “Politically, I was a conservative when I entered Columbia…I was inclined to believe that Calvin Coolidge might be another Abraham Lincoln.” He was also religious, believing “the source of all authority is God” and that “From Him, the line of authority passes to the authority of the State.”

During his time at Columbia, he began to soak in the fashionable intellectual thought that the world was in a crisis and World War I was a symptom of the crisis that would compel humanity to either work together or destroy each other. Van Doren and his colleagues would postulate that industrialization had brought the world to the final crisis and Chambers recalls that by the end of his sophomore year his brain was a “hodgepodge…a spiral nebula which caught up the whirling dust and fragments of literary and philosophical ideas….” He found mockery to be the weapon of choice used by his professors to tear down everything in the way of their perceived world crisis, and suddenly the traditions and beliefs Chambers once held were steadily eroded away. Even more destructive to him, however, was the realization that nothing was offered as a replacement to the sudden vacuum. He was introduced to, and eventually persuaded that, communism was the only solution to the world crisis. As he wrote, “I became convinced that the intelligence and power of the West were no longer able to solve the continuing crisis.” He left Columbia, believing it could no longer teach him anything, and began to be more active in the Communist Party. When his younger brother committed suicide not long after, he resolutely declared that he would live to change the world and stop the crisis that caused so much pain and death. He became a committed Communist Party member and began to write for the Daily Worker and The New Masses.

Chambers’ seduction by Marxism and eventual embrace of communism is instructive. He recognized the world was in turmoil (not knowing the cause of it— instead, he found a solution in the misguided Marxist theory of history) and tried to do something about it. He wrote in Witness, “The Communist vision is the vision of man without God.” Gone were the traditions and rules of the old morality and politics, and in their place was the simpler idea that God does not exist and therefore man was free to build the world as he saw fit. Communism loudly proclaimed to be the new destiny of humanity unencumbered by the false traditions of the past. Marx, and more especially Lenin, taught Chambers that the world was dying and that mankind had reached its historical limit. Only by fighting the world and everything it stood for until “his dying breath” could mankind finally do something to fix the world. This is how he interpreted Leninism, and this is why, as Sam Tanenhaus put it in his book Whittaker Chambers: A Biography, “he had rededicated himself with a soldier’s faith” to serving the Soviet Union which embodied the triumphant communist struggle.

While working as a writer for The New Masses, Chambers was approached by the Communist Party, who asked him to go underground and become a handler for several spy rings already established in Washington, DC. He accepted the position and began to work with other high-powered communists, including up-and-coming State Department star Alger Hiss. He grew especially close to Hiss, which set the stage for one of the most tragic and divisive trials in American history. While he worked closely with them, he began to understand what animated communists and how they would stop at nothing to achieve their goals. Shorn of traditional morality, Chambers noted a devious nature in the way the communist faithful conducted themselves. Publicly, they advocated “peace” and “social justice” but privately believed modern man couldn’t be reached through the mind or soul – only through bombs and submission. They strategically manipulated the “sympathizers, fellow travelers, dupes, [and] opportunist politicians” into helping the cause, but privately mocked and disdained them as sowing the seeds of their own destruction. He wrote that even the difference between communism and socialism was “so slight it would be difficult to slip a razor blade between them.” When Chambers brought this up after his break with communism to a group of communist sympathizers and fellow travelers, they reacted violently and refused to believe it.

It was ultimately from his work in the underground that he began to realize communism was not the solution to the world crisis. In small, incremental phases, the scales dropped from his eyes and he saw the struggle for what it was: totalitarianism and terror in the guise of mankind’s harmonious destiny. Stalin’s purges in the 1920s and 1930s struck terror into himself and his fellow espionage agents as he watched them shipped off to the Soviet Union (and in most cases imprisoned or shot). He began to read and hear reports of mass executions and atrocities going on inside the Soviet Union which deeply disturbed him. He went to his closest friend Alger Hiss and rehearsed all he had heard about the purges and Stalin’s destruction of the old bolsheviks, only to be rebuffed by Hiss as playing mental games. Chambers was shocked. He said he could hear the cries of millions, and he wasn’t the only one. For all of their discipline, many communists were still, as Chambers writes in a letter to William F. Buckley, Jr. (collected in Odyssey of a Friend: Letters to William F. Buckley, Jr. 1954-1961), “deeply humane men…[who] hear, but they do not listen.” Chambers, after a gradual and sober consideration of what communism really was, broke with the underground, the Party, and the whole notion of Marxism, and fled. His wife and children in tow, he moved to a small cottage in Florida, where he stayed up all night, writing and keeping watch for the agents he knew would try and find him. After a time, he returned to a farm in Maryland, where, through friends, he became first a writer and then editor at Time Magazine.

In Witness, he soberly notes that the West completely misunderstands communists and their methods and goals, and that “The Communist Party, despite occasional pious statements to the contrary, is a terrorist organization…its record of kidnappings, assassinations, and murders” was enough to prove the Party would stop at nothing to achieve its ends. Mercy was seen as a weakness. Chambers found that because of the adherence to terrorism and violence, every faithful communist must be a spy (whether active or not), believing that his or her actions are ultimately the most moral actions they can make to serve the cause of world communism. The end goal was the subversion of every government in the world and they could stop at nothing to obtain it.He also noted that communists each developed an iron will. He describes it as a self-imposed, semi-military discipline that came from their absolute faith in Marxism. This rigid discipline, overcoming all patriotism, love of country, family, morality, and sense of honor, created a universally held belief that “There is no fortress that the Bolsheviks cannot take.” Men and women as committed as the communist faithful were ultimately what would destroy the West, Chambers believed. He often wrote that by defecting from communism, he was leaving the winning side for the losing side.

Whittaker’s life was witness to the horrors and reality of communismshare quote on Twitter

Content to leave communism behind, he tried to lead a normal life. When the Hitler-Stalin Non-Aggression Pact was signed in 1939, he came to believe it was his duty to inform on the communist cells which had so completely penetrated the government. He had warned several friends, including Hiss, to break with the Party or he would have no choice but to inform on them. He spoke to the FBI and gave a list of names of individuals he knew to be Soviet agents in high government positions, including in the State Department, the Department of the Treasury, and even the White House. The list was taken directly to Franklin D. Roosevelt who, astonishingly, dismissed it. It wasn’t until Elizabeth Bentley, another former communist agent, defected and corroborated Chambers’ list that the FBI began to more heavily scrutinize and seriously consider what Chambers had told them. Over the next several years, he would be called on by the House Un-American Activities Committee to testify about his espionage and the extent of the Soviet intelligence penetration into the American government. It was during these trials that the most sensational of them all, that of Alger Hiss, reached a fever pitch which furor lasted beyond the cessation of the Cold War. After the trials were over, Chambers returned to his farm and in 1952 published his bestselling autobiography Witness which became a testimonial of not only his personal dealing with communism and espionage, but communism in general.  He stayed in residence at his farm and wrote several articles for National Review before dying of a heart attack in 1961.

Whittaker Chambers’ life was a witness to the horrors and reality of communism. Witness remains one of the most (if not the most) erudite, philosophical, and powerful repudiation of communism ever printed. The story itself is as gripping as any espionage novel or legal drama and it stayed on top of the bestseller list for over a year and continues to be reprinted. Chambers was a deeply thoughtful man who was, as André Malraux noted after reading Witness, “one of those who did not return from Hell with empty hands.” Indeed, he devoted the rest of his life to intellectually repudiating communism in all of it’s forms. Until his death, he continued to stand as a witness for the truth about communism and the destruction it wreaked on the world.